Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Soothing My "Death Valley Brain"

I once spent ten days of my graduate school education out in Death Valley on a Native American Vision Quest. The school was neurologically ahead of its time, believing in the facilitation of learning by organizing safe, structured, direct experiences that had manageable stresses and risks associated with them. Clearly some profound learning took place, since many details of the experience live on in my neural network more than 25 years later. Let this descriptive account be a lesson for parents and teachers alike.
One chilly morning in early April a dozen of us loaded our gear and ourselves into three vans and headed down the I-5. Somewhere between Bad Water and Dante’s View, we parked and began the long trek out into the middle of nowhere. At the time I fully possessed a vivid knowledge of Death Valley and its dangers, gleaned from watching dozens of TV episodes hosted by Ronald Reagan and his 20 Mule Team crew. Death Valley was not to be trifled with – anyone who entered it unprepared rarely came back alive.
I learned many surprising things on this excursion into the forbidden wilds of Death Valley. One was just how overrun Death Valley was in springtime with … wildflowers. Great white and yellow seas of daisies and poppies extended out in every direction as far as the eye could see. Flowers all around you tend to take away some of the hostile and forbidding aspects of an environment. The next thing we all learned was what some of the real Death Valley dangers were. Our knowledgeable guides went over them one by one. The first was sun, or more accurately sunstroke or heatstroke, with its close cousin, dehydration. To address this we each had brought along four large plastic jugs of water. Also, on the list of Death Valley dangers, as I recall, were rattlesnakes and scorpions. As someone practiced and comfortable in the unpredictable, wooded forests of my youth, none of these things worried me particularly.
Our little group spent the greater part of the first day trekking further out into the desert, losing all site of roads or familiar landmarks. At a place picked seemingly at random, our guides instructed us to set up base camp. I remember that first night spent in sleeping bags under an expanse with more stars than I ever thought could possibly fill the sky. In the morning we all gathered for breakfast and received instructions in preparation for the Solo adventure each of us would be embarking on over the next five days. After breakfast we set out in pairs on the “Buddy Plan." Our instructions were to separate from our buddy after establishing a contact point that one of us would return to every morning and leave some sign of our visit. The other would return to the same spot each evening and do likewise. The contact point my partner and I bravely chose was the place where we saw our first rattlesnake! It saw us before we saw it, curled up and clearly ready to strike. When we slowly backed off, it uncoiled and slithered to safety inside a rocky crevice.
The first afternoon and night of my Solo went by without incident. The second morning however, the first terrifying experience of the trip unfolded. I was curiously exploring a rocky ledge when I unexpectedly came upon … fresh scat! My first thought was that it was left by a dog. But if it was, it was undoubtedly a wild dog. And if it was a wild dog, then very likely he or she was part of a pack. And if he or she was part of a pack, living in the desert, they were most likely a very hungry pack. And against a hungry pack of wild dogs, I would undoubtedly be completely overmatched. In response to this series of dread-thoughts my body immediately flooded with adrenaline and my brain began to buzz with a frantic desire to find my way to safety. I had brought a knife and a staff with me and so the first thing I did was to sit and whittle one end of the staff to a sharp point. I then cut my boot laces in half, tied the halves together, and used them to tie the knife to the other end of the staff. All the while visions of snarling, starving Cujos danced wildly in my brain.
The remaining nights on this Solo were the most difficult. I lay awake under a rock outcropping in my sleeping bag desperately vigilant, attentive to every sound that played across the desert nightscape. By morning sun, I was exhausted, but still riding high on adrenaline, unable to eat, but also unable to think clearly. I’ve later learned that a brain in a state of fear cuts off much of the creative, higher cortical functions. On the last night of my Solo, completely exhausted by this point, far off in the distance I suddenly heard the faint bark of a single lonely coyote. At that point, I finally put the two together, coyote and scat! A great wave of relief passed through me and I remember laying in my sleeping bag crying, crying with relief, crying with joy, crying at my fear, at my Wild Mind, at the whole ordeal my brain had put me through based upon one little scrap of coyote scat. I came up with a short saying in that moment, the one that I’ve mentioned previously in this column. It has served as a great brain-calming, self-regulating mantra many times since my Death Valley adventure: “In this moment, I am perfectly safe.”
And so I am, and have been ever since.

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